18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 23 — Farewell to the Blue
Farewell to the Blue
Rommel's last bid for Egypt had little immediate effect on 18 Battalion except to give it a sleepless night. At 2 a.m. on 31 August, while the excitement of A Company's raid was still simmering down, an emergency call came from 6 Brigade to stand ready for action at a moment's notice; but nothing more developed that night, though the whole battalion manned its fighting pits till dawn, alert and expectant, listening to the shellfire beating a tattoo to north and south and watching the flickering flashes along the horizon. It was one of those anticlimaxes so common in war. When day broke the men were still sitting there in battle array, sleepy and flat, asking one another if this attack they had heard so much about had really begun, or was it just another false alarm?
Not till later in the day did they hear of the night's events to the south, how Jerry had pushed laboriously through the minefields and was shaping up to the British armour in 2 NZ Division's rear. Then for three days, while the two armoured forces clashed indecisively and Rommel, deprived of quick victory, was forced by lack of petrol to call the show off and withdraw, 18 Battalion had nothing but rumour to feed on.
But the front was not so quiet now. With the opening of the attack the New Zealand artillery seemed to have taken an electric shock, and the sound of shells passing overhead on their way south tended to merge into a continuous song from dawn to dark, so that if it stopped for a while you felt something was wrong. The enemy had also woken from his summer sleep, for there was movement out in no-man's land where no enemy had been for weeks, and patrols reported that he was moving up closer, digging and building sangars on the north rim of a previously empty hollow called Deir el Angar, not much more than 1000 yards from C Company. Enemy shelling grew heavier and more frequent. For the first time since Ruweisat mortar bombs fell on C Company, and there was even a little sniping if anyone showed himself incautiously.page 319
The battalion was bound to react strongly to such cheek. As soon as the enemy was reported at Angar the 3-inch mortars went into action against the new sangars, and on the evening of 31 August 14 Platoon of C Company sallied out at them, along with three carriers and three Valentine tanks borrowed for the occasion.
This was a noteworthy event, for never before had the 18th had tanks all to itself in a small-scale show. But even here the lack of sympathy between tanks and infantry, one of the curses of the Eighth Army, became evident right at the outset. The tanks, galloping ahead far too fast for the men on foot, got in among the sangars and had a most enjoyable party, tossing grenades round, running over sangars and trenches, and machine-gunning the unfortunate Italians. Enemy mortar bombs began to fall all round, and the C Company men, in the words of an eye-witness, ‘saw minor fires start on the outsides of the tanks and concluded that they had been destroyed’. But this was quite wrong, for the report goes on: ‘They returned safely however and reported that they had had Italians squealing, yelling and climbing all over them surrendering but the tanks had no means of bringing them back.’
No. 14 Platoon did not think much of this story. The tanks, it felt, could have waited till the infantry had caught up and been on the spot to take over prisoners. As things were, the infantrymen had no chance to get near the fun or the loot.
Not only on the ground, but in the air, things livened up after Rommel's attack began. Jerry had apparently been saving up his planes and crews for the event. From 31 August big formations of Stukas began to infest the skies, also big clumsy Junkers 88s and wicked little Messerschmitts, coming over in droves to bomb and strafe ahead of the attackers. But the days were past when the Luftwaffe could bully the British with impunity. Not only were RAF bombers over several times a day and most of the night going for Jerry's artillery and transport, but our fighters were usually out on patrol ready to pounce on German planes, and 18 Battalion was treated to a series of spectacular dogfights. Our ‘ack-ack’ display, too, raised loud admiration; the Luftwaffe was invariably greeted with a tremendous barrage that filled the sky with little black shellburst puffs, and whenever the planes came within range the battalion's Brens and rifles jumped into action and added page 320 their welcome. Many a raider, thanks to the vigilance and skill of the Bofors men, never got back home.
On the first day of the attack the battalion witnessed a particularly memorable crash, the story of which is told in its intelligence log:
One Stuka flew over our area from East to West after getting hit by our AA. Flew over about 15ft high and was engaged by small arms fire. Nearly crashed in B Coy area and finally landed … about 3500 yards out. 2 men ran from plane and MG's opened up on them. Our arty also shelled the plane in an attempt to destroy it.
That night A Company sent a patrol out to the crashed plane to blow it up, but it was heavily guarded, and in the bright moonlight the patrol could not get near it.
By an unusual coincidence, almost exactly the same thing happened five days later, when a Messerchmitt, after flying low over the battalion on its way home, landed on its nose halfway across no-man's land. This time the enemy was kept clear by Vickers fire, and after dark a demolition patrol went out from A Company and succeeded in completely spoiling the plane for Jerry.
These early September days were very trying ones, fearfully hot, fearfully dusty, and full of uncertainty. Everyone knew that the New Zealand Box might be attacked; nobody knew when or from what direction an attack might come. There were yarns going round that Rommel's attack had fizzled out; until 3 September they were only rumours, but that afternoon something more definite at last filtered down. Jerry was indeed retreating. The Kiwis were going to cut off his retreat (not strictly accurate, but that was the story), and 18 Battalion's part was to be another raid on the sangars at Angar, with no tanks this time, but with support from the artillery and Vickers.
To the boys, with A Company's profitable raid still fresh in their memory, this idea sounded very good, and there was a general air of pleased anticipation that evening as they made ready. The notice was fairly short and preparations had to be hurried, but that seemed to be the regular thing in this desert war, and everyone was hardened to it now.
The idea behind this new show was to narrow down the lifeline running back from Jerry's attacking troops to his permanent line, and afterwards, if everything went right, perhaps to page 321 cut it altogether. The idea was first suggested on 1 September when the attack was at its height. When the German tide turned and began to ebb there seemed no good reason why the counter-attack should not go on as arranged; it would at any rate worry Rommel and make his withdrawal more difficult. So it was decided that on the night of 3 September 2 New Zealand Division would sally out of its fortress, push south and establish itself along the north edge of the Alinda-Munassib-Muhafid depression line, that gash in the desert where the Kiwis had played hide and seek two months before. It now meant an advance of four or five miles from the New Zealand wire, over an almost flat stretch of country occupied by the doughty 90 Light Division, on whose left was the mixed bag of German paratroops and Italians who had come up to Angar and were making such nuisances of themselves to 18 Battalion.
The main attack this time was to be by 5 and 132 Brigades. In 6 Brigade, 26 Battalion was to move out and protect 132 Brigade's right flank, while still farther to the right 18 and 25 Battalions would make diversionary raids on Angar and do as much damage as possible before pulling back behind their wire again. To heighten the deception, artillery and Vickers were to shoot up the Angar positions before the raid; it was hoped that this demonstration would attract all enemy eyes while the main business of the evening by 5 and 132 Brigades got under way silently and unnoticed.
Before the attack began B Company was to open up a gap in its minefield; then at 11 p.m. the attacking companies, B and C, were to file out westwards through this gap, form up out in the middle of no-man's land with B on the right and C on the left, and advance due south towards Angar, some two and a half miles away. After them would come a supporting column of carriers and anti-tank guns. On arrival at the objective the companies were, according to Sergeant Bill Kennedy, ‘to penetrate the enemy lines, halt at a given very-light signal…, re-form and return to our own lines with our wounded and any enemy prisoners’. Put as baldly as all that it sounds like a picnic, but nobody expected to get away without trouble, for the Italians when cornered could fight hard at times.
There was trouble before the raid even began. Perhaps roused by the preliminary Vickers fire, Jerry began to shell the front heavily, distributing his favours widely up and down. He page 322 seemed to know, or suspect, that something was up. However, the Vickers programme was over before the companies were due to move, and the shelling eased off too. But there was more trouble coming.
By one of those oversights that are so apt to occur when things are done in a hurry, the minefield gap was not cleared until B Company was on the move, and then it was a rush job, as the companies were to go in hard on the heels of their artillery supporting fire and so had to work to strict timing. The first platoons of B Company got through the gap with no trouble, and so did the leading carrier just behind them; but an anti-tank portée coming next hit an unsuspected mine and stopped right in the fairway. The rest of the column, following close behind, had nothing for it but to back out of the minefield—no job for nervous men on a dark night under fire. By good luck only one man was hit, but that was the end of the night's performance for the carriers and anti-tank guns, and the rest of B Company and all of C were late getting to the start line. Captain Brown of C Company tells of his company's scramble to make up the lost time:
We had to file down the gap past the destroyed 2 pdr portee and straight out on to the start line…. By the time C Company were starting to reach the start line the arty fire plan had commenced. There was no time to shake down—the rear pls simply ran out from the minefield gap, turned left and ran south to get up close to our arty Barrage.
This was no way for a methodical unit like 18 Battalion to begin an attack.
Then, to quote Captain Brown again:
After progressing about 400/500X [yards] south the Italians started to fire north. It was one of the heaviest small arms concentrations I can remember during the whole war—we were saved because between our start line and the objective the ground dipped about 5 ft and all the Italians' fire went over our heads or most of it.
Mortar bombs also splashed round the area in front of the sangars, and there were several casualties before the companies got to striking distance, but they reached the enemy's line still in good formation, and battle was joined at hand-to-hand range.page 323
For B Company on the right the actual encounter among the sangars was quite an anti-climax, for few Italians had cared to remain. The three platoons worked their way down through the positions more or less independently, making a systematic search and dragging out one or two unwilling prisoners, but there was little actual fighting.
C Company, on the contrary, had quite a lively time. Some Italians on its front played safe and made off, and others surrendered without argument, but some machine guns kept firing from the company's left flank, and a few steadfast Ities faced the attackers and exchanged hand grenades with them till they were killed or captured one by one. C Company itself took a lot of casualties in this short clash, including all its platoon commanders—Lieutenant Taylor1 of 14 Platoon and Second-Lieutenant Philips2 of 15 Platoon killed, and Second-Lieutenant Hirst3 of 13 Platoon wounded.
Then Captain Brown goes on to say:
Soon however it was obvious that the momentum of our attack had spent itself and that the enemy were becoming more active and I could expect a counter attack before long. I decided staying on any longer would achieve nothing but would certainly make it difficult for us to get out. So I put the success signal (Very lights) up and organised the withdrawal.
It was high time to go, as the enemy was coming to life again, and perhaps realising what a small force he had against him. Not only was the machine-gun fire thickening up, but mortar bombs were beginning to drop at the northern edge of the sangar line, just where the boys would have to pass on their way home. However, there was no help for it. The word went round to pack up and hit the trail.
This withdrawal, by far the most difficult and trying part of the whole show, brought out the battalion's best qualities. It would be foolish to class it with the epic march over the Cretan mountains, but the same loyalty and hardihood were there on a smaller scale. If one man can with justice be singled out, it page 324 must be C Company's CSM, Archie Fletcher, who worked like a horse to keep the company together and under control during the fighting, and to ensure that all the wounded got back. The two companies together had set out about 130 strong, and of these 11 were dead and some 30 wounded, a heavy loss for a small-scale affair. The survivors, under fire from the rear (the most unpleasant sort of fire there is), kept their heads and retired in good order, bringing with them not only the wounded but 52 assorted Italians as well. ‘The getting back of so many wounded,’ says Captain Brown, ‘I thought was magnificent’; and CSM Dave Wilson4 of B Company comments: ‘I feel great credit was due to our Platoon Commanders for keeping such great control over their Platoons during such a difficult period.’ It was satisfying to know that they had left scores of dead and wounded Italians behind them.
While this was going on among the Angar sangars, things were very unhappy back in 18 Battalion's own lines. The shelling earlier in the evening had been bad enough, but when our 25-pounders opened up in support of the raid they provoked a storm of shells such as Jerry had not put over for months. The hardest-hit spot was B and C Companies' exposed ridge, luckily almost bare of troops for the time being, but the whole area got a plastering—a long one, too, for when the returning B and C Companies came in sight it was still going on. Jerry seemed to be paying special attention to B Company's minefield gap, and there were also machine-gun bullets zipping round there; some of B Company made their way through the minefield itself where it was slightly quieter, and the rest waited till the ‘hate’ slackened off a bit, while most of C Company preferred to take a short-cut home through the mines on their own front.
B Company now had another job to do—to get that tell-tale anti-tank portée back out of the minefield before Jerry saw it and began using it as an aiming point, and also a stray jeep that had somehow run on to the mines. All hands, tired as they were, piled in and manhandled both vehicles back to safety; then the one carrier that had got out was driven back in, and when day dawned the front looked as peaceful as ever.page 325
For those of 18 Battalion who had no part to play in the raid, this night was an endless jumble of noise, lights and shells. First the noise of random enemy bombing (for the Luftwaffe was throwing everything about that night to cover Jerry's withdrawal), then the noise of our guns and the enemy's spirited reply. A little later a great crescendo of noise farther east, where the main attack met furious opposition before it was well under way. And lights—aerial flares and Very lights and tracer, hour after hour. It was the most spectacular night on the New Zealand front for a long time, and nobody got much sleep, particularly as the German guns kept whanging shells into our lines till dawn.
The attack was not a great success; 18 Battalion's sideshow produced as good results as any of it. Interference with Jerry's withdrawal was hardly noticeable and very temporary. Part of 5 Brigade penetrated to Munassib and spread dismay among the enemy there, but 132 Brigade suffered a series of misadventures and finished up back where it began, with nothing to show for it except hundreds of casualties. Lieutenant-Colonel Peart, now commanding 26 Battalion, had been mortally wounded, to the great regret of 18 Battalion's older members, who still regarded him as one of themselves.
The men of the 18th, having no supernatural powers, could not foresee the future. Had they been able to, they would have had the shock of their lives. For this Angar raid was the last action that 18 NZ Infantry Battalion was ever to fight.
The next few days were anti-climax, for both the German attack and the New Zealand counter-attack had fizzled out, and both sides had to recover. The shelling on 18 Battalion did not abate much, the Luftwaffe was just as busy, dogfights just as frequent. But there was no more talk of attacking, and the line seemed to be settling down again into its humdrum summer routine, the men swatting flies and swearing about the heat. There were still some night patrols, but they were quiet and inoffensive, mostly small ‘recce’ parties looking over the enemy's new positions—though a couple of them crept in close to Italian digging parties and shot them up before pulling out for home.
From 4 to 7 September 18 Battalion was without Lieutenant-Colonel Pleasants, who took over 6 Brigade temporarily, page 326 Brigadier Clifton having gone out on an ill-starred morning excursion which ended up in a prison camp. About the same time the battalion lost an old friend in Padre Dawson,5 who had been with it for two years and was regarded as permanent. His successor, Padre Gourdie,6 was treated at first with the polite reserve that all new padres have to suffer, but he set energetically about overcoming this, even tramping round the companies in the heat of the day, a pastime few cared to tackle.
When things simmered down again after the Angar flare-up it looked as if the battalion was stuck in its hot, dirty corner of the line for good. But about four days later a new word began to be whispered round the unit, and that word was ‘relief’. Nobody knew who began it, but there it was, and it gained strength when strange British officers appeared in the area with map boards. Despite all the horrors of the Alamein summer, 18 Battalion was still ready to have a crack at Jerry any time, but the idea of a relief, of going back to a quiet place where Stukas and shells would not come buzzing round, was like a beautiful dream. The war diary for 9 September, with one of its rare human touches, remarks: ‘We are to be relieved but we have been disappointed before.’ Nobody dared place too much faith in the story.
But even while the rank and file was busy trying not to believe the relief rumour, arrangements for relief were really going ahead, and 6 Brigade was churning out an operation order giving all the details. Definite news of it came through to a joyful battalion on 10 September. Its place in the line was to be taken that night by 5 Royal West Kents of 132 Brigade, and 18 Battalion was to go back with the rest of 6 Brigade to the B Echelon area at Burg el Arab, where, said the operation order, 2 NZ Division would have ‘a week's rest before re-organisation and start of offensive trng’. This was most wonderful news—to a soldier a week in the future is eternal, and what is to happen at the end of it can be left till the time arrives.
Packing up that night was not the usual burdensome chore. One thought sparkled in every mind, that in a few hours the dust and stink and flies of Alamein would be left behind for a page 327 while, and that they would be reclining at ease far from the war. Even hanging round waiting for the newcomers, who were two hours late coming in, could not dampen 18 Battalion's delight. As each company was relieved it moved off on foot for a rendezvous with trucks two miles east, and never did two miles slip so easily under the feet. All the heavy gear was carried out, except the 3-inch mortars, which, to their crews' disgust, had to stay behind for another whole day because the West Kentish mortars stuck in the sand on the way in. The main convoy, its passengers laughing and joking despite the hour, left for Burg el Arab at 3 a.m. on 11 September.
It was no ideal holiday trip, especially before dawn. The night was pitch black, the route a series of bumps, the dust thick; the convoy moved in fits and starts, and once a driver went to sleep and split the line into two, so that the tail had to gallop over the rough track to catch up. By the time the battalion reached Burg el Arab the boys were very happy (once bivvies were up, slitties dug and desert grime washed off) just to take it easy for the rest of the day. And when meal times came—fresh food, plenty of it, and big hunks of cool watermelon—they were even happier.
There was yet another surprise coming up. Scarcely were the men settled in at Burg el Arab when the whisper was going round: ‘We're going back to Maadi.’ Incredible, but true. The unit was to go back to rejoin its own 4 Brigade, and would see no more of Alamein for some time. But there was a postscript that pulled everybody up with a jolt—24 Battalion, which was to replace 18 Battalion up the blue, was to take over, not only much of the 18th's weapons and gear, but a lot of its men as well. This was rather appalling to a unit which had just been welded by two and a half months of action into a smoothly-working team, and was as jealous of its name as 18 Battalion. But there seemed no way out of it.
On 13 September the battalion was dragged from sleep as the first tinge of dawn greyed the sky, and at 5.15 a.m. its convoy was on the way, spinning down the lovely tarsealed road with no bumps, no dust, no stops and starts. The men, who had forgotten what a sealed road was like, fairly basked in the luxury of it. And at 3.30 p.m., when the clean huts and tents of Maadi hove in sight, with D Company standing round page 328 to welcome the trucks in—well, they could hardly take in the fact that they were really back among unlimited water and showers and picture theatres, with fresh food to eat and real mess huts to eat it in, with wet and dry canteens on the spot, and newsboys shrieking their wares. There was a ridiculous thought at the back of your head that maybe this was a mirage, and would vanish after a while. The contrast was too great and too sudden.
For many of the men the dream faded too soon, for next day the axe fell. Eighteenth Battalion, said the authorities, was to keep only 350 men, fewer than ever before except when it had come off Crete. Who stayed and who went was decided purely on length of service with the battalion—old hands stayed, newer arrivals went. There was heart-burning and disappointment, there were protests and arguments, and the war diary laconically declares: ‘Very tough break all round’. In the afternoon 209 men packed up for the last time in the 18th and moved over to the 24th. Colonel Pleasants made them an address of thanks, but there was little that could be said.
And there was no leisure to sit and moan about the good men the unit had lost, for within a day or two things began to happen which took the mind and tongue of every man permanently away from the past, and centred all interest in the future.
1 Lt A. E. Taylor; born NZ 22 Jun 1914; draper's assistant; wounded 23 Jul 1942; died of wounds 4 Sep 1942.